Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Aristocracy Of Incompetence

This is a work in progress; I don't know if I'll even make much sense in this go.

I do tech-y work. I'm good with my hands -- a bump of mechanical aptitude, a dollop of artsy-craftsiness, and the sheer good fortune to grow up with parents who figured anything one applied oneself to, one could do; which they both demonstrated on a regular basis and passed on to their offspring like a fish passes on swimming skills: I never realized there was any other approach.

But there most certainly is and it's nothing nice. In my working career, in my adult life, I keep encountering over and over again* the hard truth that those who can end up doing for those who can't, over and over. Can't drive a truck? Roberta can. Can't do trim carpentry or finish wood? Roberta can. Need a bespoke microcontroller designed, built, programmed and installed? Can't work out and retrofit a technical ground system? Can't sew, can't cook, can't plan a week's menu? Hey, I know just the gal! Meanwhile, we'll go have coffee and think Higher Thoughts....

And that's fine; I like being able to do things and I take a certain pleasure at my job in being able to do just about anything -- some things better than others, but "no, I can't," is rarely in my vocabulary, unlike a few of my nominal peers.

Nevertheless, it's irksome at times to do all the work for half the credit, to be paid the same as the bum who walks away from sloppy, incomplete work; to always be the thrifty ant, never the heedless grasshopper. And I wonder, is it that way for others, too?
* Had to fix that.


KurtP said...

I hate to say it, but I hink it's geting mor common as the years roll on.
The glorifcation of "show" over "go."

Anonymous said...

You are writing the story of my soul.

The more diverse my talents become, the more difficult to stop people from wanting to abuse them.

I have deliberately tried not to become so good at any one thing that I get dragged irreversibly down a specific path. I learn enough about whatever discipline I need to do the job at hand, and then move on to the next thing.

So I know ebough about hundreds of disciplines to be able to do things in them, but I'm not an expert at all of them, or even more than a few. However: My work, because I'm meticulous, is often mistaken for the work of masters. And the masters take credit for it.

Yeah, we're brother and sister, M'lady. Pity for me you got all the looks.

Jeffro said...

You oughta try the USPS sometime. It's full of totally incompetent people who are there to get "eagle shit." It just isn't the union rank and file - management is full of excellent examples of "The Peter Principle" in action.

Anonymous said...

Funny. I was just spacing out on this concept this very evening -- how the prime prerequisite of accomplishment is the confidence that you CAN do something.

I firmly believe that any human being (with notable exceptions) can do any task any other human being has done or can do. We're born with it. And gradually, through little life lessons, we either enhance the ability or we stunt it.

Parents and teachers can kill the natural urge to learn and desire to do with thoughtless little actions.

Peers are great at pulling other crabs back into the bucket.

And we convince ourselves that we can't do things. "I'm so bad at math." Well, yeah. And if you never apply yourself, you'll remain bad at it your whole life.

Frank Herbert wrote of Paul Atreides that his earliest lessons had been in learning how to learn -- starting with the understanding that he could learn. (Or something like that -- I hate having all my books packed up in storage.)


Alan said...

Two Words:

Peter Principal

You're just not there yet. :)

(And stay out of management to. That's guaranteed to turn you into a bottom feeder.)

Anonymous said...

The story of my life.

I can't tell you the number of times I've gotten "It'll just take a minute"

There are ways of dealing with it:
1)If it's not in your job description, it's not your problem.
2)If it's somebody looking for a favor, charge them. Make it so high that it's worth the effort. If they're so cheap that they're not willing to pay fairly, than it's not worth doing.
3)Learn to say "NO".

Anonymous said...

I don't know how much of it is that others are incapable of doing for themselves so much as they have no desire to put forth the effort.

Why do it yourself when you can just call someone else to do it for you?

I'm kind of a "jack of all trades" myself and many people know it. When someone needs help repairing the car, the computer, the roof, the plumbing, the guns etc etc etc...I'm typically toward the top of the list of "who do I know that can do this kind of work?"

However, I'm rarely the first one called for help. You see, I have a policy: I'll help anyone, but I will not do it for you. I'll show you how, I'll lend a hand, I'll teach you. But if you are expecting me to be elbow deep in fixing your stuff while you lounge on the front porch with a mint julep and this month's edition of Gentleman's Quarterly, you've got another thing coming.

The ones who don't mind doing for themselves but just don't know how to tackle the specific job call me. The ones who are just looking for someone to do their dirty work for them call someone else.

Just the way I like it.

Carteach said...

Roberta, you are not alone.
You are, as you note, a rare bird.
Yet you do have a flock to belong to.

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach"

I declare BS. The correct phrase is: "Those who can, do it ALL. Those who can't, take credit for doing it".

For those of us who produce, it begins with the attitude that we can do it, therefore we should do it. I have been fighting that attitude for years, and now believe it's wrong. It encourages and reinforces the position of those who can't.

Early on, there was a certain satisfaction to being one of those who actually got things done. Need a vehicles unusual problem diagnosed? Get that guy. The office computer acting up? Get that guy. Write a newsletter for the business? Get that guy. Figure out a way to test this thing? Get that guy.

Now.... after years of it.... I have come to believe ever more in the ideas that Ayn Rand put forward.

See you in the valley Bobbi.....

Anonymous said...

"to do all the work for half the credit"

How are you managing to get credit? The only thing I seem to get credit for is something that got screwed up and it's amazing how many of those things I wasn't even involved in.

Mark said...

Your list reminds me of one of my favourite Heinlein quotes:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

It's not easy being A Generally Competent Person in this modern world. Feebleness is lauded, competence seen with distrust and fear by the less capable, or with discomfort by the lazy. How can they justify coasting along, when you're there with a multimetre dangling from one hand, a 2x4 over the other shoulder and a good meal cooking on the range?

But as Civilisation™ appears to be configured to give the easiest ride to the most people, providing an effort-free path from cradle to grave with no demand to exert, extend or expend oneself, that slack lassitude becomes the norm.

The intense willingness to let any capable hands lift a job from one's shoulders is conditioned in every facet of life, from getting a doctor to look at a scratch, through to complaining to government over one's unwillingness to drag trash to a dump, through to being impelled to summon police for any and all personal defence issues.

Yes, you're weird. But you're my kind of weird, and I've come to realise that it's no terrible thing to be in The Capable Minority. It's just sad that so many other potentially complete people throw their opportunity to live a rich, varied, fulfilling life away.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

You should make a little clear plastic logo sticker and leave it on everything you fix or make.

Eventually, people will start noticing everything around the studio or the transmitter room has a little "tuned by RobertaX" on it.

Roberta X said...

It seems what we have here is a Competent Legion -- excellent company in which to find oneself!

Doc S., I've done that; it's how I got up to half the credit: devices I've had to redesign (audio distribution amplifiers with a dated, noisy power supply, for instance) get documented right on the chassis and signed; things I wire up or rewire, I used brightly colored ty-wraps instead of the standard black or white. Then we switched over to Velcro, which is a better idea, but the good stuff only comes in on color. Still, it was pretty funny to have someone claim to have done something and overhear peers or bosses reply, "Nope, Bobbi did that -- see the neon cable ties?"

Tango Juliet said...

High expectations? In this day and age?

Heresy!!! Complete and utter heresy!!

Turk Turon said...

I know whereof you speak.

As a freelancer I am frequently called upon by staffers to do their work for them. They have job security due to union seniority or civil service, and I don’t.

So I try to remember Bronko Nagurski.

He was a pro football player in the 1930’s and 40’s. He was a big man, even for today. He still holds the record for the largest NFL Championship ring ever made: size 19 ½. That’s 86mm inside diameter.

Nagurski was a Minnesota farm boy, and legend has it that he was “discovered” by a college coach who stopped to ask for directions and noticed that the boy was plowing a field without a horse. He was signed on the spot to a full athletic scholarship. They say he once started a college game with cracked vertebrae, but ran the ball six times in a row to put his team ahead.

Nagurski played fullback for the Chicago Bears in an era of brute-force football. He would tuck the ball in, lower his head and just charge straight for the goal line.
The great story told about Nagurski is that on one carry, he lowered his head and charged, flattening two linebackers, then the safety. He kept running, bounced off the goalpost (they say it rang like a bell) and continued running, through the end zone and finally crashed into the brick wall at Wrigley Field. When they picked him up, he said, “Uhhh… that last guy hit me kinda hard.”

So I try to remember Bronko and I just put my head down and charge ahead. I’m not known for my subtlety or persuasion.

But perseverance I got!

Mr. Fixit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Fixit said...

edited for spelling:

I know how you feel. And I bet that you're like me in that when you see someone else doing something that doesn't measure up to your standards, you want to 'help them' do it right. I usually end up getting left with it at that point. They don't care, and I can't help but try to do it right.

If it's worth doing, it should be worth doing right.

Mr Fixit

the pawnbroker said...

bobbi? i like that, it's my sister's name, short for barbara...

no point in fighting it; incompetence is being bred into children in schools today...a gold star for just showing up or "trying", and after a while the kid sees it's a lot easier and just as rewarding...

so the thing for "doers" to do is to charge for their experience and effort, not always in money, but make the slackers "pay"...

and the final "payoff" will be that in the end, for humankind as in the rest of the animal world, only the fit will survive...jtc

p.s...can i change my blogroll listing to bobbi x?

breda said...

It's okay say no sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Yup, works that way for me.
"Can you help me debug this code?"
"My computer won't boot, help!"
"Hey, I've got a leak in the roof, any ideas?"
"Damn sink keeps leaking, what do I do?"
"My car won't start and I know you're a gearhead..."
"Say, think you could help me wire this stereo?"

On the one hand, it's flattering that people trust my abilities. On the other, it gets really really old trying to walk my mother through computer repairs.

In the end though, I'd rather put up with the hassle of Those Who Can't than be one of them myself.

staghounds said...

The willing horse pulls the load.

The brilliant John Greenway, who had been by turns a full time carpenter, soldier, teacher, anthropologist, policeman, and author of a standard book on folk songs once said "There isn't any money in knowing how to do more than one thing."

Which was perhaps inspired by this experience:

"I remember during the Depression my father, master of five trades and speaker of seven languages, grubbing for our food in garbage cans."

Comrade Misfit said...

OT, but you might want to know this: Steampunk is in!

Turk Turon said...

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

And those who can't teach, teach gym.

Sendarius said...

It happens all the time - do the work, watch someone else (who couldn't find their rear with both hands even if it was on fire) get the credit.

Ever read "The Marching Morons", by Cyril M. Kornbluth?

It was MEANT as fiction: it is coming to seem like prophecy.

Anonymous said...

I do understand having a variety of abilities, I thought I should try to teach. At least some of my skills or encourage a desire to learn. I have made offers of range time shop time book loans.
Can't find any takers as soon as they find out there is no instant gratification. I won't quit though never pass a chance to mentor.

Roberta X said...

Sendarius, a few of us have been looking for our "Kornbluth Was Right" T-shirts for years! He sey several stories in the "Marching Morons" future and with every year, the notion that the lazy and stupid will outbreed the motivated and competent becomes more plausible. --Side note: it appears that he accurately predicted rap music, too.

Anonymous said...

The story that originated Kornbluth's whole "moron" series was "The Little Black Bag"- a must read, if you haven't.

Roberta X said...

PS: Yes, Pawnbroker, you can.

Alan said...

I recommend the movie Idiocracy, directed by Mike Judge for furthering the Marching Morons theme.

theirritablearchitect said...

"it's irksome at times to do all the work for half the credit, to be paid the same as the bum who walks away from sloppy, incomplete work; to always be the thrifty ant, never the heedless grasshopper. And I wonder, is it that way for others, too?"

Yes ma'am, it is just like that for some. I commiserate with you in this regard.

The Farmer said...

Awesome post, glad to know I'm not alone.

I thnk most people who are good at a lot of things are in the same boat. Our natural curiosity to learn new things, do things for ourselves, and take pride in what we do dooms us to be, in my case, everyone's "IT biatch" or some variant thereof. Before Good Will Hunting stole my idea, my plan was to get a job from a buddy who manages facilities, polishing floors and emptying trash at MIT. If anyone asked me a question, I'd respond "no hablo" and go on my way. But then I'd get bored and start fixing computers for magic beans again. Maybe it's karma?

staghounds said...

It just happened AGAIN!!!

Off to the races tomorrow. We put it on, a 25,000 person event. I've done every job there from outrider to placing judge, which I will do again tomorrow.

The GSO1 of the hunt and the race is the busiest person on race day, because she has to deal with all sorts of stuff. She's had a death in the family. So who do they call to be her AND me tomorrow?

That's right, Staghounds!

There may not be any money in it, but it's still quite a charge to be the one who can be relied on.

I remember why we do it now.

Mark said...

'nuff sed :)

Assrot said...

That is exactly why I make the big bucks and stay under cover. When nobody can fix it they call me. I used to take their crap and the same lowly pay as all the others but no more Madam Roberta.

Take a stand. Leave them to their own wits and let them figure it out a few times by theirself. Then they will see the value of a person like you and make you the offer you so richly deserve.

Men don't like it when women outsmart them, especially professional men. I suspect you may be hitting some of that glass ceiling that many women run into.

Withdraw your talents for a time and let them suffer and feel the true error of their ways. They will bow to the mighty Roberta or swim in their own shame and embarassment.